The value of studying Norwegian—a life’s adventure

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Jim Nelson

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For Jim Nelson, learning Norwegian was an enriching, life-changing experience. Nelson earned a doctorate in Scandinavian languages and literature and spent 15 years teaching music in Norway. He is pictured here standing in front of the Storting in Oslo.

Chesterton, Ind.

For those who would say, “Why learn Norwegian? They all speak English!” I would respond, “You don’t know what you’re missing!” As a child, I thought that the rolling lilt and soft vowel sounds of my Norwegian-American relatives were gentler than the more prosaic speech of my peers and their parents in rural Indiana. I first wanted to learn Norwegian because it was my father’s native language, and later, I wanted to learn it so that I could read Norwegian folk tales and Henrik Ibsen’s plays in the original. I had no idea how the Norwegian language would change the entire course of my life.

Since learning Norwegian, I’ve been able to converse with Norwegian children, schoolteachers, academics, doctors, farmers, poets, artists, musicians, and two prime ministers. Over the past 50 years I’ve served as an interpreter and tour guide for Norwegian and other Scandinavian tourists (not all Scandinavians feel comfortable with English!) and done professional translations: personal letters, journals, legal documents, and more. As a language teacher in Norway, I was able to help many students through their struggles learning English. I’ve even been able to communicate in Norwegian with Swedes, Icelanders, and Danes. One of my most memorable experiences was singing in an excellent Norwegian male chorus for 10 years, performing concerts throughout Europe. My most personal memory is reciting the Norwegian table grace, together with my father and my then 10-year-old son. Without Norwegian, these are all experiences I never would have had. 

Learning Norwegian brings different benefits to different people. It can build your communication skills, improve your creative writing abilities, strengthen your English grammar, and expand your English vocabulary. It can also help you gain expertise on specific aspects of Northern Europe, a critical global region. Norway has been a major oil-producing country for over 50 years, a fact that has brought its people to center stage in international politics and economics. Norway’s quick acceptance of digital technology and artificial intelligence has opened yet more fields of employment with a global outreach.  

My life’s adventure with Norwegian began at age 6, when I was given the part of a Norwegian julenisse in my school’s Scandinavian Christmas program. My father said, “If you’re going to be a julenisse, you should know how to speak some Norwegian.” He taught me some Norwegian phrases, and my performance was a success. I was hooked and wanted to learn more.

At Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., I took Swedish while studying for a bachelor’s degree in music education. I was soon able to use my new language on a shopping trip to Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. When I learned of the Scandinavian programs at other colleges and universities, I wondered if I might combine Scandinavian studies with my music training. 

A few years later, I took an intensive summer school course in beginning Norwegian at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I was eventually accepted into a master’s program in Scandinavian Studies. Halfway through, I took a hiatus to attend the University of Oslo. When I left for Norway, my conversational skills and vocabulary were adequate, but when I returned to Madison, my spoken and written Norwegian skills were greatly advanced, and my creative writing skills were better than I could have imagined. I was able to converse easily with the Norwegian exchange students in Madison. Some asked me if I would consider teaching in Norway; they said that there was a shortage of public school music teachers and that my Norwegian was good enough to teach there.

Upon graduation, I worked on the university campus for two years. During this time, I taught evening classes in Norwegian for the university and at the local Sons of Norway lodges in Madison and Stoughton. Around the time I received my master’s degree, I met Arnold Hofset, a Norwegian professor of education on a sabbatical at the University of Wisconsin, and we began what has become a lifelong friendship. 

Arnold wrote to me of a music vacancy at a suburban Oslo school, and I applied immediately. In order to teach in a Norwegian secondary school, one must document three areas of pedagogic competence. Thanks to my formal degrees in music education and Scandinavian Studies, I was granted competence in music, English, and Norwegian, and I got my first full-time teaching job in Norway. I was able to add that job to my résumé when applying for admission to a doctoral program in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. While it may have improved my chances of admission, I do know for sure that it improved my self-confidence in applying for a three-year Norwegian language teaching assistantship, which offset the cost of my doctoral studies.

Now, I can look back on a long career of teaching in which I was able to employ my degree in Scandinavian Studies throughout most of my working life. For 12 years, I taught at colleges in Canada and the United States and at the University of Oslo. Prior to that, I taught music in U.S. public schools, and before retirement I spent 15 years teaching music in Norway. I was able to continue teaching after retirement there as a substitute in school districts near my home in Drammen until I returned to Indiana in 2012 to marry the woman of my dreams and enjoy my retirement. I am still very active in the Sons of Norway and perform Scandinavian music on a regular basis.

My knowledge of Norwegian has enriched my life in so many ways. Not only did it help me find employment in three countries, it facilitated my intellectual growth and social development. It bolstered my self-confidence and oral communication skills, my patience and ability to objectively evaluate ideas and values different from my own, and to recognize their importance. The accomplishment of learning Norwegian has helped me with virtually all of my life goals, including the goals that took form while I was living in Norway and viewing my own culture and original values from a distance.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson is a Norwegian-American scholar and musician, who lived and taught in Norway for over 18 years. Nelson is an expert in the Norwegian immigration to the United States, Norwegian folk music, and Scandinavian immigrant music. Now based in Chesterton, Ind., he continues to perform and is president of the Scandiana Sons of Norway lodge.